Pet Safety for Cold Weather & the Holidays

The holidays and cold weather pose special challenges to pet owners. A little preparation and precaution can ensure that you and your pet have a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season.

Some of the more common winter and holiday hazards include:

Age-Specific Concerns

Puppies are not as hardy as adult dogs and they do not tolerate the cold as well. Puppies may be difficult to housebreak during the winter. If your puppy is sensitive to the weather, you may opt to paper-train him inside. If your dog is sensitive to the cold due to age, illness or breed type, take him outdoors only to relieve himself.

Antifreeze

Antifreeze is a lethal poison for dogs and cats. Ethylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze, tastes sweet to pets, and they will lap it up only to become deathly ill. Animals (and we must think of wildlife) are much more likely to ingest antifreeze in freezing weather because all other water is frozen. Consider using products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol and make sure any spills are cleaned up.

Automobiles

Most pet owners are aware of the dangers of leaving their pet in a hot car during the summer months, but many are not aware that it is also dangerous to leave your pet in a cold car. A car can act as a refrigerator in the winter, holding in the cold and causing death in a pet. Pets should not be left unsupervised in a car. Additionally, we often see very serious injuries that result from cats seeking the warmth of a stilled engine and then getting injured or killed when the engine is started again. If you have free ranging cats in your neighborhood, bang on the hood before you start your car because they can be under the hood.

Treats

Although we all want to make our pets happy during the holidays, don’t change their diet.  Adding rich leftovers may cause your pet a painful stomach upset or even, in cases of serious pancreatitis, possible death. If you must give a special treat, make it a low fat food and keep it very small. Remember that the best treat may be an extra walk or some playtime with you!

Bones

Chicken and turkey bones are very dangerous to dogs because they splinter into sharp pieces that can pierce the GI tract. Beware of steak bones, too. Small bones or bone chips can lodge in the throat, stomach, and intestinal tract.  Also, even large cow bones, often sold for pet holiday gifts, can be dangerous because they are so hard that many dogs fracture their teeth when chewing on them. Please no bones!

Candles

Burning candles should never be left unattended – especially around pets. An exuberant tail or a swat of a paw can turn candles and hot wax into an instant disaster. Anchor candles securely and away from curious faces and feet.

Electrical cords

Holiday lights mean more electrical cords for pets to chew or get wrapped up in. Make sure cords are secured and safely out of the way.

Feline Safety

Keep your cat inside if at all possible. Outdoors, felines can freeze, become lost or be stolen, injured or killed. Cats who are allowed to stray are more likely to be exposed to infectious diseases, including rabies, from other cats, dogs and wildlife.


During the winter, outdoor cats sometimes sleep under the hoods of cars to stay warm. When the motor is started, the cat can be injured or killed by the fan belt. Even if you do not own a cat, there may be outdoor cats that live in your area. Bang loudly on the hood of your car before starting the engine to give neighborhood cats a chance to escape.

Grooming

Never shave your dog down to the skin in winter. Longer coats provide more warmth and protection from cold temperatures. When you bathe your dog, be sure to completely dry him before taking him out for a walk. Consider getting short-haired breeds a coat or sweater with a high collar or turtleneck with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly. For many dogs, especially small dogs, this is regulation winter wear.

Holiday plants

Holly and mistletoe are extremely poisonous when eaten. The poinsettia can also cause severe gastric distress. With an increasing number of hybrid varieties available, the best approach is to keep all plants out of your pet’s reach.

Holiday tree

Make sure your tree is well secured. If you have a tree-climbing cat or large dog with a happy tail, anchor the top of the tree to the wall, using strong cord or rope. Avoid preservatives often used in the water for holiday trees, they can cause gastric upsets, and avoid sugar and aspirin additives in the water as well. Also be sure to check around holiday trees frequently. Ingested pine needles can puncture your pet’s intestines.

Ornaments

Sharp or breakable ornaments, dreidels, and even aluminum foil should be kept out of reach. String objects, especially tinsel and ribbons, are to be safeguarded at all costs. They are thin and sharp and can wrap around intestines or ball up in the stomach.  If you  suspect that your pet has ingested a foreign body, get veterinary care immediately.

The Outdoors

Never let your dog off leash on snow or ice, especially during a snowstorm. Dogs often lose their scent in the snow and can easily become lost. More dogs are lost during the winter than during any other season, so make sure yours always wears ID tags.  An ID tag and microchip is the best gift that you can give your pet!

After a walk, thoroughly wipe off your dog's legs and stomach when he comes in out of the sleet, snow or ice. Pets can ingest salt, antifreeze or other potentially dangerous chemicals while licking their paws, and their paw pads may also bleed from snow or ice.

Stress and Guests

With everyone coming and going, watch out for open doors. Make sure your pets have updated collars and tags on in case of escape. Microchipping your pet will also help if your pet escapes. All pets should have at least two forms of identification on them at all times. It is also helpful to put a friendly sign on your door reminding your guests to close the door so that pets cannot escape. When someone doesn’t own a pet, it is not second nature for them to quickly close doors in the way that it is for pet owners.

Ask guests to keep an eye out for pets underfoot and remind them that sometimes your normally friendly dog or cat may be less than willing to deal with enthusiastic children and rooms full of unfamiliar people. Provide your pets with a blanket and fresh water in a quiet room that they can retreat to when things get too festive.

Pets as gifts

If you want to give a pet as a gift, please wrap up a stuffed animal or picture, a pet care book, and a certificate that entitles your loved one to receive the pet after the holidays.  This method of presentation allows the person to accept or to decline if they do not want to take on the responsibilities of a pet. Also, a pet is not a plaything and young children are often too excited on the big day to handle a pet as gently as they should. It is better to adopt your pet on a day when the adoption and introduction to your home is your main focus. 

Drs. Dave and Betsy Thompson used this method when their children where young. They selected a dog and prepared a box for the children to open on Christmas morning containing the dog's picture, a dog care book, bowls, leash, collar, bed, etc., and then after the holidays were over, took the children to pick up the dog. Chloe was introduced to her new home on a day when they had lots of time to explain to their children how frightened she might be of all the changes that she was experiencing and how important it is to consider her feelings when interacting with her. Chloe became a member of the family that day and rewarded the Thompsons many times over for their consideration of her feelings in the adoption process.